Scaling up SET and strengthening the network’s Digital and Sports play constitute the game plan for NP Singh, CEO of Sony Pictures Networks India, as the network looks to forge ahead minus IPL, which added Rs 1,300 crore to its kitty last season
By SIMRAN SABHERWAL
Zen is the word that comes to mind when one walks into the spacious office of NP Singh, CEO, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN). It probably helps to have Singh with his calm demeanour at the helm, as in spite of its expanded offerings, the network now has to move ahead minus the money-spinner and ratings giant Indian Premier League (IPL), that added Rs 1300 crore to its kitty last season. While a significant percentage of SPN’s topline goes away due to IPL broadcast rights moving to Star India after the recent Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) auctions, and the big question on everyone’s minds is how SPN will make up this shortfall, Singh is his smiling self when he says, “We are curating a multi-sport culture in the country and have invested in that process by also acquiring TEN Sports. This, and other properties that we continue to bring on board, will nullify any losses on account of IPL no longer being with SPN.”
When Singh took over the corner office at SPN in January 2014, his top priority was the turnaround of the network’s flagship channel, Sony Entertainment Television or SET. Three years later, SET has scaled up the ratings ladder, SPN has expanded its offerings to become a 31-channel network, venturing into the kids and infotainment genres, and acquiring TEN Sports from Zee Entertainment Enterprise (ZEEL). On Singh’s agenda now is consolidating the network’s position across Entertainment, Digital and Sports.
SET: ON A NEW COURSE
In October 2015, SET garnered its lowest GRPs, 70, and was at sixth position in a cluster of seven Hindi GECs. From getting the right people on board to laying down the future course of action and executing it, Singh says that SET has built a strong base of viewership, and gained significant traction, resulting in overall growth of the channel. This is on the back of non-fiction shows such as Super Dancer Chapter 2, The Kapil Sharma Show and fiction shows Kuch Rang Pyaar Ke Aise Bhi, Beyhadh and Ye Un Dino Ki Baat Hai, Sankat Mochan Mahabali Hanumaan, Peshwa Bajirao and Mere Sai. But, it was bringing back the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) Season 9, after a threeyear hiatus with actor Amitabh Bachchan, that gave a big fillip to the channel, propelling it to No. 1 position in key markets while the show was on.
With KBC now off air, the channel has launched four new shows in the slot of KBC and a concerted effort has been made to ensure that the shows are inclusive to build reach in small town India. Singh says, “I feel very confident, given the content that we are offering to viewers, that they will do well with the core audience of the channel and we should be able to maintain our strong position in the Hindi GEC genre.” However, it’s wait and watch for the moment, as to how SET makes good on the gains made on the back of KBC; this at a time when Zee TV is in resurgence mode and Colors and Star Plus go all out to retain their position. The other GEC in the SPN stable, Sony SAB, was rebranded in June this year to give it a more vibrant, youthful, and contemporary feel, and Singh states that the slew of new shows, such as Tenali Rama and Sajan Re Phir Jhoot Mat Bolo (and the perennial favourite, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah) have helped gain new viewers. Looking at the broader Hindi GEC space, it has witnessed a metamorphosis over the last one year after BARC started measuring rural data, thereby leading to a growth of Free-To-Air (FTA) channels. With Star India pulling the plug on its GEC Life OK and revamping it to Star Bharat (an FTA channel with original programming), one wonders what is SPN’s blueprint? “We will explore original content on Sony Pal sometime in the future. At this stage, it will be too premature for me to discuss it. Right now, the archive content of SET and SAB has been doing extremely well,” says Singh. While it’s work in progress for the GECs, the Hindi movie channels of SPN – Sony Max, Sony Max2, Sony Max HD and Sony Wah – have consistently been topping their category across both the rural and urban markets.
We might not have the revenue from IPL, but the cost is also not there: Rohit Gupta
Rohit Gupta, President, Network Sales and International Business, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN), talks to IMPACT about revenues, performance and advertiser interest in SPN’s channels
ON PERFORMANCE OF THE NETWORK
We have had a very good year despite what the industry is going through with GST. We had a high double-digit growth, over 20%, and at the network level we are doing extremely well on the back of our channel performances. Our main channels, be it SET or Sony Max or Sony Pal, are doing extremely well. Sony Max has been a leader in its genre with a 30% week-on-week lead over its next competitor. The ad rates of Sony Max have been going up by 20-25% every year. Sony SAB has been doing well and shows like Tenali Rama have seen high advertiser interest. All our big channels are firing, including our FTA channels, Sony Wah and Sony Pal. While other networks have one channel at the top, as a network all our channels are in the Top 1 or 2 position across genres. That’s the advantage of the network and hence the advertiser interest. Our digital revenues are growing higher than the industry average and we are trying to get audiences on Sony Liv which will obviously drive advertisers. The English cluster is where we are facing challenges but that is an industry challenge.
ON OFFSETTING THE IPL REVENUES
We have a lot of cricket. We’ve done two India series already – West Indies and Sri Lanka. Next, we have a very big series coming up in South Africa. Next year, we have the FIFA World Cup and we have a lot of big marquee properties. You need to understand it’s not just about a topline, you need to be profit-focused and also need to have a good bottomline. The price at which we bought the IPL made it profitable for us, now it is going to be difficult. We might not have the revenue from IPL but the cost is also not there.
ON PERFORMANCE OF SET
SET has had very high growth and the year has been excellent. After a long time, we were at the No. 1 position for a few weeks and all our big properties have seen a 100% sellout – be it KBC, Super Dancer or Indian Idol... 2017 has seen a great run. Advertisers obviously prefer our channels. The numbers of KBC were beyond our expectations and even the advertisers’ expectations.
ON UPCOMING PROPERTIES
The advertiser response to the upcoming properties has been very good. We have sold the sponsorship for Porus (Patanjali Dant Kanti as presenting sponsor, Raymond and Macho as co-powered by sponsors, PCJ as jewellery partner). We’re trying something new and different and believe the market is ready for that. The successes of our recent launches have led to the advertisers believing that we will be able to pull off a good product. The shows have been priced at a premium. While KBC was priced at around Rs 3.5 lakh per 10 seconds, Porus and Super Dancer are priced around Rs 2.5 – Rs 3 lakh per 10 seconds.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR SPN
The economy will get better. The GST issues seem to be sorted out and I expect things to only get better now. With our channels continuing to do well, we will ride on channel numbers.
THE ENGLISH DILEMMA
A genre that has taken a hit in the revamped BARC universe is niche channels, with the viewership of English language channels dipping. While acknowledging this fact, Singh maintains that SPN’s channels PIX and AXN have been leaders. Reflecting on the changing viewer consumption pattern, he states, “We have noticed a slight shift in consumption from linear to non-linear, in the English language. That’s something that we have come to terms with and counter.”
ON AN EXPANSION DRIVE
As part of its expansion drive, SPN entered the infotainment space through a joint venture with BBC Worldwide in March this year, to launch Sony BBC Earth, a premium factual entertainment channel. In a space dominated by the likes of Discovery and National Geographic, Singh terms the launch as successful, and says due to its strong content, the channel has seen a steady growth in reach and viewership. But, the challenges in the English space prevail here too, as the impressions on infotainment channels, like English entertainment, have been under pressure. With the entrenched players investing significantly in local content, the channel’s strategy is to continue to showcase “top quality content” from the BBC stable, with possibilities of local content in due course. In April this year, SPN ventured into the kids category with Sony Yay. This genre is cornered by three dominant players – Cartoon Network (Turner), Disney, and Nickelodeon (Viacom18), the combined market-share of which is over 90%. In a category where character love determines success, the approach has been to build affinity for original home-grown characters and grow reach. SPN has to surmount the challenge posed by the three dominant players, who leverage the strength of their bouquet of channels to garner market-share and get a slice of the under-indexed ad-pie. Asked whether the network would look at further segmentation here, Singh says, “Currently, my objective is to first make Sony Yay! a strong brand and then follow it up with other options.” It will be interesting to see how the youngest channel in the kids genre makes a dent in the market-share of the entrenched players and charts its own growth path. As for the HD space, limited viewership has not helped broadcasters who were enticed by higher ARPUs earlier. Says Singh, “For LePlex HD, it is still early days. The High Definition segment has limited viewership and within that, LePlex has performed decently. It could have done better, but given the limitations and lack of growth in HD subscribers, we have not seen the numbers grow as much as we would like. ROX HD has also done well. It’s a unique proposition but has loyal viewership.”
THE DIGITAL PLAY
Coming to Digital, SPN’s OTT platform, Sony Liv, has a lot of catching up to do when compared to its peers. As per data from app analytics firm App Annie Inc on monthly active usage for the first half of the year, Star India’s video streaming app Hotstar was at the top spot, followed by JioTV and JioCinema (from Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd), with Voot (from Viacom18) and Amazon Prime Video rounding off the top five. Sony Liv comes in at sixth spot, climbing up from seventh position (in the second half of 2016). Commenting on this, Singh claims that SonyLiv has turned profitable and says, “We are building it brick by brick. We have actually achieved a lot of success in the last one year.” The prime focus now is on Sony Liv becoming the destination for sports – cricket and football – which will help drive traffic to the platform. In addition, the platform is aggregating original content, short films, regional content, investing in regional content and has introduced food as a genre, tying up with Sanjeev Kapoor to launch FoodFood on SonyLiv to curate the digital food experience. While all OTT players are investing in original content, it’s catch-up content that drives viewership for SPN, and here Singh surprises us when he says, “The highest consumption of Hindi GEC content on any digital platform is content from SET and SAB on Sony Liv.”
THE SPORTING DUEL
SPN’s acquisition of Zee’s sports business has helped strengthen its sports play. The lucrative IPL had helped SPN build reach and made the network a must-buy for an advertiser. Now, it needs to be seen how SPN counters Star’s aggressive sports play and how assertive it will be when it comes to bidding for the upcoming BCCI’s media rights for all international matches in India, which Star India holds till March 2018.
On being asked how the acquisition of TEN Sports has worked out, Singh says, “It’s just been six months post closure and the integration has got completed successfully. Our distribution revenues have grown on the back of TEN Sports. We’ve had two cricket series, West Indies and Sri Lanka, and the third is coming up with South Africa. This has also helped us grow our ad revenues. So, the TEN Sports acquisition has gone well.” In addition, SPN is looking to invest in acquiring relevant sports rights across sports such as Football, Basketball, Wrestling, Tennis, etc, as it has 11 channels in its portfolio dedicated to sports, including a Hindi feed. However, with Star India now betting big on Regional sports – with Star Sports 1 Tamil and more recently Star Sports 1 Kannada - it needs to be seen how Sony counters this move as regional is one space where SPN has still not made its presence felt. The other three big broadcasters – Star India, ZEEL and Viacom18 - have been aggressively driving their regional plans in an attempt to drive revenues as regional markets are lucrative for broadcasters. For example, the advertising potential of the four southern markets is estimated at around Rs 45-50 billion as per the KPMG India- FICCI Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2017. SPN loses out on this revenue stream, as barring its Bengali channel, Sony Aath, it has no regional presence. “Regional has always been of interest to us and we evaluated a few opportunities a few years ago. We may have something to share with you in the near future,” says Singh.
On the movies front, Singh says SPN’s studio arm Sony Pictures Networks Productions has had a 50% success rate, with the Arjun Kapoor-starrer Mubarakan doing decently well while Poster Boys failed to set the cash counters ringing. Currently, the company has one film under production and it is evaluating two other projects. Meanwhile, the corporate ethos of SPN has been coined as ‘Go Beyond’ and Singh says that this philosophy denotes SPN’s thrust to go beyond the ordinary. The network aims to stay true to its philosophy, be it in the effort to produce and exhibit upscale, outof-the-box content, expand into new genres or take on entrenched players, dial up its Digital game or become aggressive in Sports. But, will this philosophy help the network become one of the top two networks in India in terms of viewership and revenue? For now, we just have to stay tuned, wait and watch.
‘SET’TING A NEW COURSE
In October 2015, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) was at its lowest point with 70 GRP, standing at No. 6 position in the pecking order of Hindi general entertainment channels. Two years later, SET has not only bounced back with a new and radical approach, but also enjoyed No. 1 position for a few weeks in October, propelled by its popular show, Kaun Banega Crorepati
When old Sony hand Danish Khan returned to Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) in 2015 as EVP and Business Head of the flagship channel Sony Entertainment Television (SET), post a stint at Star India, his mandate was clear - revamp SET. Under Khan, the strategy laid out was to clearly define the space SET would operate in. The focus was to understand the unfulfilled need gap of consumers and then find a place which was under-serviced but also large enough for Sony to operate in. His mandate overall was to build the brand with a new team and vision. Says Khan, “When I look back, I had one line: ‘We can’t get different results by doing the same thing’. The first step was to get a very sharp definition of what we want to achieve. When the TG was decided as Urban, then what kind of programming do we need and who are the best people who can deliver it.”
A key learning was that the GEC category had changed. Explains Khan, “First, the measurement system was no longer limited to a few urban centres and expanded to include rural markets, hence the variety and heterogeneity had come out very strongly. Two, there is a lot of fragmentation in the GEC space and the consumer is spoilt for choice. The myth that a GEC appeals to every family in every home across the Hindi-speaking market (HSM) for TV has been broken, the numbers suggest. There is not a single Hindi GEC which reaches out to every home across the Hindi-speaking market. Our thought was whether we should look at a geographical segmentation, a demographic segmentation, or a psychographic segmentation.” Finally, the blueprint made was to segment the genre psychographically, and create a channel for a viewer who was ‘young, vibrant with a zest for life, urban and aspirational’.
With GECs primarily focusing on women, Khan is clear that SET and its shows will appeal to both genders. In addition, the content created had to pass through three clearly defined filters – Novelty, Quality, Variety - and also be a finite series. He says, “Every show has to have something new with high production values. The content that is aired every half hour should be different and finite – be it fiction or non-fiction.” A clear brief is that all non-fiction shows on the channel are commissioned for 26-50 episodes while a fiction show could be between 50-150 episodes or have on-air duration of about six to eight months, so that the development pipeline can be ready with replacements.
CHANGING THE PRODUCTION MODEL
With the way the current production model is structured, particularly for fiction shows, production houses claim that a serial has to be on air for at least six months for them to recover their initial investment costs. In this scenario, would SET’s new strategy impact how budgets of a TV show are made? Admitting that this was a constraint, Khan believes it is because of this ‘six months recovery mentality’ that no new stories are being told. “For a long running show, producers spend huge sums on physical assets, such as sets. Obviously, the finance and budget has changed with this approach. The reason we are doing this is primarily because till the time you change that mindset, you can’t tell new stories,” says Khan. “We are working with different production houses and they are happy as they know that they don’t have to stretch the story to earn money. As we are targeting an audience that is urban and low on patience, if we don’t deliver something good with a tight storyline, they will watch something else. So, to tell a pacy story, we have changed the economics. The idea is the moment you move the constraint out, then you don’t have to tell ‘saas-bahu’ stories.”
Another requirement is asking producers to shoot in real locations with a mandate that at least 10 minutes should be shot outside the set, and encouraging some of them to rent commercial property as against putting up sets.
Khan concedes that as producers are conditioned to tell a particular kind of story, it will take some time to change their mindset. The channel, on its part, is prodding producers to tell the stories they want to tell. This strategy also helps counter the challenge prevalent in the Hindi GECs, where the success ratio of shows in the recent past have been abysmal, with a majority of shows shutting down within three to six months of launch. Khan also believes that the moment you have variety and a finite series, even people from the big screen will move to Television.
WHAT WORKED FOR KBC
One generally doesn’t see a sponsor using snippets from a show as part of its TVC; but it would have been impossible to have missed the latest creative from Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd which highlights its association with Kaun Banega Crorepati, Season 9 as the presenting sponsor. Danish Khan says the key decisions taken have paid off and helped KBC garner ratings 10-15% higher than expected. The first initiative was to make the programme interactive and engage with the viewer via the second screen. Before the start of the series, the channel identified categories – Telecom, Banking, etc. - which could have a seamless integration with KBC, and then the channel chased the categories where the integration came naturally. Celebrity special episodes were done away with, instead, inspirational people like badminton player & Olympic medal winner PV Sindhu, child rights activist & Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, innovator Sonam Wangchuk and mathematician and Super 30 founder Anand Kumar made their way to the KBC hot seat across Amitabh Bachchan. The show was made pacier with 14- 17 questions posed every hour as against seven in the previous season. According to Khan, in the next season of KBC, the channel could toy with the idea of keeping one audition entry to the ‘hot seat’ open after the show goes on air as against closing all contestants before the show launch. The effort will also be to reach out to viewers beyond just Sony’s reach.
Meanwhile, an analysis by research firm Zapr shows that this season of KBC enjoyed consistent viewership, with a peak of 21.6 million viewers on October 11, 2017. It also found considerable migration from other topviewed Hindi TV shows and even other channel genres like Hindi Movies, Hindi News, Kids and Sports channels. “Interestingly, KBC had higher penetration in cities with above 1 million population such as Jabalpur, Bhopal and Indore, indicating higher affinity towards the show among these socio-cultural regions (SCRs),” says Aditya Kulkarni, VP, Data Insights, Zapr.
CAPITALIZING ON KBC
With KBC drawing in big numbers, SET experimented with the time-band of the ‘safe show’ when launching shows to build its primetime. With KBC as the lead-in show, ‘Ye Unn Dino Ki Baat Hai’ was launched at 10.30 pm, followed by ‘Ek Deewana Tha’ at 10.00 pm. The on-air time of KBC was brought ahead to 8.30 pm, so that ‘Haasil’ could be launched at 9.30 pm with the final launch ‘Rishta Likhenge Hum Naya’ at 9 pm to coincide with KBC going off-air. With the launch of the big-ticket historical Porus on November 27 at 8.30 pm, Khan says SET’s weekday FPC will be complete from 7.30 pm to midnight, with 8pm to 12 am being the key slot, keeping in mind SET’s urban positioning, and scope to expand to the 7 pm timeslot next year. He adds, “We believe Porus has the ability to get families like KBC, so we have kept it at 8.30 pm. We believe it’s a great unifier across markets and will appeal to all age groups.” The weekend programming of SET has been traditionally strong, while the weekday fiction was struggling – now, all eyes will be on SET to see how the new shows play out.
THE NUMBERS GAME
With the focus clear on urban markets, Khan claims that SET has been a market leader or contender for the top spot in many markets. He says, “We have consistently been the No. 1 GEC in Mumbai, No. 1 or 2 in Delhi for quite some time. In UP, 1 million plus, Gujarat 1 million plus, Madhya Pradesh 1 million plus, Maharashtra 1 million plus and Punjab 1 million plus, or to put it simply, in the metros and 1 million plus towns, we are either Number 1, 2 or 3.” Asked if these numbers can be attributed to the driver show KBC, Khan says, “This is true even without KBC.
In Mumbai, we were a close Number 2 before KBC with around 200 GRPs, with KBC the GRPs was around 290-300. We want to be the most loved GEC player in urban India.” Reiterating that SET is not looking at width or at going into rural, he says, “We are looking at depth. If an average consumer in Mumbai consumes 210 minutes of content, can we take it to 250 or 260? Time spent in each of our markets becomes more important. We are looking at increasing the time spent rather than increasing the reach. The way to increase time spent is to have engaging content and increase engagement rather than increasing the hours. For example, before KBC, the average time spent in the half-hour slot was close to 9-10 minutes; with KBC it went up to 15 minutes.”
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
For its next launch, the historical series Porus, SPN has not retained the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), 100% of which rests with the producer Siddharth Kumar Tewary, founder and chief creative, Swastik Productions. With the producer having skin in the game, Khan believes that the producer will be motivated to put out content that he is passionate about and what he actually wants to make. Another change is in the approach to marketing, as Khan believes that “marketing in a very conventional form is dead”. The focus is on generating conversations through the topic or through the character. He says, “If we were spending Rs 100 on conventional marketing, now we spend Rs 50. The other half we are spending to ensure the core of the content remains alive by creating and pushing videos in digital assets. The basic idea is to give people elements to talk about rather than just having a one-way communication that this is our show. The consumer has access to the character, and gets to know what are the aspirations and anxieties of the character and the actor.”
Senior VP and Senior Creative
Director, Content The challenge is to create sharp content that will keep the viewer engaged. Earlier, if a show did well, the time slot was taken care of; the challenge now is that every show comes with an expiry date and you have to plan for what will replace that and it should be equally good.
Senior VP & Head, Insights and Programming Strategy
‘Jio Play along’ on KBC showed us that the two screens need not necessarily compete with one another. The screen in hand can be used to enhance the viewing experience and not distract from the main screen.
VP, Programming Strategy
Increasing the hours of programming is not going to create a big disruption. If we offer quality, variety and novelty, that’s going to be the big disruption on our fixed point chart (FPC), and these factors will also drive appointment viewing.
For fiction shows, specifically, the idea is to build characters, and not just by running the promos on reach channels. With the growing number of consumers on digital platforms which provide twoway communication, we have totally stopped spending on outside network channels.
THE WAY AHEAD
The clear path ahead for SET is to create IP properties. It has danced its way to success with its IP for the dance reality show, Super Dancer, which has been syndicated abroad. The channel is now working on three to four new non-fiction shows that have been conceptualized in-house and expected to be on air in 2018.
SET has also launched a brand, Sony Originals, to create premium content that will focus on home-grown formats and tell original Indian stories, including historical and mythological, for a global audience. The internal resources will conceptualize the show and then a production house will be engaged to execute it. Returning on Sony next year will be singing reality show Indian Idol, the next season of KBC and comedian Kapil Sharma. Joining them will be actor Salman Khan who is back to host the third season of Dus ka Dum. On a parting note, Khan says, “2018 is a very important year for Sony. With the new launches ending in 2018, there will be new shows on weekdays also. In fiction, you will get a variety which has never been seen on Indian Television. You will also see a variety of new non-fiction shows that are new ingrown endogenous formats, and we are very confident about them.”
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